CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Hurricane Frances (search) did more damage to the Kennedy Space Center (search) than any other storm in history, tearing an estimated 1,000 exterior panels from a giant building where spaceships are assembled, officials said Monday.
No space shuttles were inside the 525-foot-high building, a familiar landmark at the space center. But center director James Kennedy said he feared the damage could set back NASA's effort to resume shuttle launches next spring.
Monday marked the first time anyone from NASA (search) had seen the damage from the storm because the agency completely evacuated the space center — the first time NASA made such a move.
The holes left by the missing panels created 40,000 square feet of "open window" on two sides of the building, Kennedy said. Each aluminum panel measures 4 feet by 10 feet.
Kennedy said it was too soon to provide a dollar figure for all the damage. Hurricane Charley three weeks earlier caused $700,000 worth of damage, and this will be "significantly more," he noted.
But Kennedy expressed relief that the space center had been spared a direct hit by a storm that was once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph.
The storm made landfall early Sunday at Sewall's Point, some 100 miles south of the space center. The facility endured sustained winds of more than 70 mph, and gusts reached 94 mph at the peak of the storm, Kennedy told reporters in a telephone conference from Crystal City, Va.
Nonetheless, the initial feeling of the 200 employees inside the space center Monday was "that we had dodged a big bullet," Kennedy said.
"I was significantly worried about the future of human space flight based upon that doomsday scenario" of a direct hit by a hurricane with at least Category 4 force, Kennedy said.
Kennedy is especially worried about Hurricane Ivan out in the Atlantic. His emergency team inside the space center already has warned him that temporary repairs to the assembly building may not be possible in time for Ivan.
Monday's preliminary look indicates that the shuttle hangars and the spaceships themselves, grounded since last year's Columbia disaster, were not damaged at all, Kennedy said. Neither was the building that houses all the international space station parts awaiting launch.
Workers had yet to inspect the two shuttle launch pads, located right on the beach.
But in a potential blow to NASA's return-to-flight effort, part of the roof came off the building where the shuttles' thermal tiles are made. The silica glass fiber tiles cover much of the exterior of each spaceship and protect against the heat of re-entry. There was extensive water damage inside that structure, Kennedy said.
Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building were two shuttle external fuel tanks, which hopefully were protected from the rain, Kennedy said.
The Vehicle Assembly Building was built to accommodate the giant Apollo rocketships that carried men to the moon. Construction began in 1963 and was finished in 1963. Although the building was designed to withstand sustained wind of 114 mph and gusts of up to 125 mph, it had begun to deteriorate in places during the 1990s, especially the roof.
The building is about 700 feet long — the size of more than 2 football fields — and more than 500 feet wide.
The space center — most of it still without power and phone service — remained evacuated except for the emergency inspection team, and the other 14,000 employees were urged to stay home on Tuesday, too. The center was closed Thursday.